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Bantham Beach in south Devon – the lost and the found

The dunes and strandline at Bantham Beach
The back of the beach at Bantham showing the dunes and the white-bleached wooden fences, also the strandline with seaweed.

 

There’s something other-worldly about sand dunes. They’re such unusual, secretive places and I remember as a child being able to lose myself in a dune dip. So, as we walk up the sandy path crossing the dune ridge at Bantham on the south Devon coast, there’s a little bit of me back all those years, hiding. The path is edged with marram grass, richly gilded in today’s low sun, and seemingly threatening to take the path back. There’s also a prolific patch of Alexanders with its shiny, yellowish-green leaves. The plant is one of the early signs of spring by the coast and I notice a few fresh creamy white flowers.

The roar of the waves increases steadily until we reach the highest point where the path widens between white-bleached wooden fences. A sandy beach, deep and broad, is now spread out below us and we get our first taste of the cool sea breeze. We walk downwards across the unsteadily soft sand and, with the tide this low, it’s a long walk to the surf. But there certainly is surf and I watch volleys of waves and white water making their attack. To the west, the beach ends with the mouth of the River Avon, while ahead the central view is filled by the green outcrop of Burgh Island with its white art deco hotel shimmering in the sunshine.

There are several family groups on the beach today. It’s half term and children are enjoying building sand castles; some are even paddling. One large group pass us, body boards slung over shoulders. The strandline spreads in a wide semi-circle across the beach with increasing amounts of seaweed towards the eastern side. I spend some time poking around with a walking pole examining the strandline debris. There’s not much large plastic waste but I do see small fragments over most of the beach, some gradually disappearing under wind-blown dry sand.

I notice a young woman nearby with her children, all clad for arctic weather. She’s looking in my direction and eventually comes over to enquire kindly:

“Have you lost something?”

“No, I am actually looking for something.”

I open my hand to show her the few plastic pellets I have found on the beach: “I’m looking for these.” Her children also want to look. “Some of them are nurdles, the raw material of the plastics industry.”

“Yes, I’ve heard about them” she replies

She continues: “Did you see about the palm oil on the beaches, apparently it’s completely legal for ships carrying palm oil to flush out their holds into the sea. Several dogs have died eating lumps of the stuff washed up on beaches.”

We talk for a while and then she wishes me good luck in my hunt, telling me to make sure I publicise what I find.

A high-pitched “peep, peep” announces the arrival of several rock pipits skittering around on the beach, looking for insects in the seaweed. They swoop around like wagtails, even wagging a little when they land.

It’s cold on the beach so we head up along the coast path that follows the edge of the cliffs at the eastern side of the beach. The path is busy with families and dogs and, after heavy overnight rain, it’s muddy and slippery. As we gain height we get better views of the waves approaching the beach in wide, white-fringed, concentric arcs.

The path levels out to snake eastwards, roughly following the line of the cliffs. It’s being continually re-routed inland because of “activity” in the cliffs and we notice deep red-rock fissures where the cliff will eventually fall away. Thurlestone Bay with its distinctive stone arch is laid out ahead of us, the sea dominated by a silvery mirror spread by the low sun. We look downwards to buff-yellow sandy beaches criss-crossed with anonymous footprints and to dark rocks where the water boils and spray shoots upwards as the waves rush inwards. Oystercatchers add their yearning cries to the atmosphere.

Thick tussocky grass fringes the path and starry yellow celandines are starting to show, with the occasional gorse bush continuing the colour theme. A large black beetle, about 2cm long, makes its unsteady way across the path. In the sunshine I see hints of iridescent blue from its back and from its distinctive wire-wound legs. This is a Bloody-nosed Beetle; later we see another and I wonder how many are squashed by walkers gazing at the views. The same may be true about two large caterpillars we encounter later. About three times the length of the beetle, they are covered in thick wiry hair, bright orange-brown above and mid brown below. These striking creatures are larvae of the Fox Moth taking advantage of some winter sunshine.

We catch fragments of conversation from passing walkers, minor insights into other lives. Then ahead I see a young man sprawled on the grass by the path. Has he slipped on the mud and hurt himself? No, he is checking his phone messages!

For some distance the coast path follows the edge of the golf course. Signs helpfully warn us to watch out for flying golf balls but today there are few players and after passing the Club House we reach Leas Foot Sands, a pleasant sheltered sandy beach and lunch stop. We see the usual bits and pieces of plastic rope and twine but the beach appears relatively clean today compared with previous visits. Sea mayweed, with its fleshy green foliage, is growing well at the back of the beach accompanied by plastic fragments blown into the grass behind the dunes. Hazel discovers a crack in the rocks on the west side of the beach where many different kinds of industrial plastic pellet have collected.

After lunch we retrace our steps along the cliffs passing a male stonechat sitting on a bush flicking his tail and displaying his snowy white collar. The wind is stronger and colder, and water and waves are now coming within striking distance of the dunes at Bantham. Two kite surfers enjoy the white water, zipping back and forth. Occasionally, like watery ballet dancers, they leap into the air as the wind shifts.

We visited Bantham on February 15th 2018

Looking eastwards from the coast path above Bantham
Looking eastwards from the coast path above Bantham

 

A fissure in the active cliffs above Bantham
A red-rock fissure in the cliff top above Bantham

 

Coast path above Bantham
Approaching the golf course on the coast path between Bantham and Thurlestone

 

Bloody-nosed Beetle near Bantham Beach
Bloody-nosed Beetle (photo by Hazel Strange)

 

Fox Moth caterpillar
Fox Moth caterpillar

 

Looking towards Thurelstone Rock and Bolt Tail from Leas Foot Sands
Leas Foot Sands looking towards Thurlestone Rock and Bolt Tail

 

Plastic pellets found at Leas Foot Sands

 

 

Bantham Beach high tide
Approaching Bantham at high tide

 

What a difference a storm makes.

Here I am again at Leas Foot Sands near Thurlestone on the South Devon coast, a week after my first visit.  Storm Ophelia passed noisily through the area between the two visits, bringing very high winds and rough seas and I wanted to see how the beach had fared.

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 4
The sand dunes at the back of the beach with some debris

Mist accompanied me for most of the journey down but as I approached the coast, the gloom cleared and there was a hint of brightness in the sky.  To the west, the art deco hotel on Burgh Island glowed in a halo of white light and there was even a little milky sunshine at Thurlestone.  These luminous promises were destined to be unfulfilled as the sky quickly resumed its overcast state leaving the sea a uniform dull grey-blue.  At least it was calm; there was virtually no wind and the waves looked as though they couldn’t be bothered.  Perhaps because of the calm, there were birds about, on the beach and on the cliffs, wagtails, corvids and pipits.  Compared with my visit a week ago, the tide was much lower, exposing a larger area of beach with several concentric arcs of debris and a mass of dark seaweed at the water’s edge.

The beach at Leas Foot Sands is enclosed on either side by moderate red cliffs and backed by scrappy sand dunes that have suffered badly in previous years’ stormy weather.   Today these dunes resembled a piece of conceptual art dedicated to our throwaway culture.  All sorts of debris littered the rising sand:  many small fragments of plastic, wood and seaweed, feathers, plastic containers and many pieces of plastic wrapping. There was even a battered but colourful drink can that seemed to have come from the Far East.    It had obviously been fairly wild when the storm arrived, with high winds and waves reaching right up to the back of the beach; this area had been mostly clean a week ago.

Further down the beach, there were several arcs of debris presumably corresponding to the distance reached by different tides as the storm abated.  These strandlines contained small pieces of seaweed, cuttlefish shells, Portuguese Men O’War looking rather sad and deflated with some in pieces, cotton bud stems, colourful rope and fishing tackle.

One of the arcs of debris in the centre of the beach grabbed my attention.  It contained some of the same stuff but in lower amounts: a few feathers, small dry pieces of wood and seaweed and the occasional shard of plastic.  The big difference was the presence of nurdles, very easy to spot littered among the other debris here.  There must have been several hundred of the small, mostly grey, plastic particles spread across the beach in this arc.

Finally, near the water’s edge, there were substantial amounts of shiny dark brown seaweed partly submerged in the shallow water.  It looked as though this had been newly collected and dumped by the storm.  There was little or no plastic waste in this area.

So, what a difference a storm makes.  I wasn’t surprised to see all the litter at the back of the beach given the ferocity of the storm but the nurdles were a shock.  A week ago we had been hard pressed to find any nurdles at all whereas today they were plentiful.  The challenge now is to understand why the nurdles arrived and why they were apparently concentrated in one strandline.

…………………………………………………..

Our seas and our beaches are contaminated by nurdles, these small pieces of easily transportable plastic used as a raw material for making many of our plastic goods.  Nurdles pose many dangers but one obvious concern is that that they will be consumed by seabirds and by fish with dire consequences for their health.  Here is a link to more information about nurdles.

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 2
Debris at the back of the beach superimposed on one of the clumps of sea rocket

 

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 1
Debris at the back of the beach

 

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 3
A drink can seen at the back of the beach – it that may have travelled far.

 

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 5
Debris piled up at the back of the beach

 

Leas Foot Sands middle of beach after storm Ophelia 2
A mid beach shot with a sad-looking Portuguese Man’O War

 

Leas Foot Sands middle of beach after storm Ophelia 1
More unusual finds on a mid beach hunt

 

Nurdles on Leas Foot Sands after storm Ophelia 1
Nurdles on the middle of the beach along with natural debris. The nurdles are the small grey cylindrical pieces.

 

Nurdles on Leas Foot Sands after storm Ophelia 2
More nurdles in the middle of the beach.

 

Shoreline at Leas Foot Beach after storm Ophelia
Seaweed at the water’s edge.

 

Love bugs and other surprises at Bantham Beach in south Devon

Last weekend we took advantage of the mild weather and went to Bantham Beach for a picnic and a walk. It being Sunday, we weren’t the only ones with this idea and, by the time we arrived, a flotilla of windbreaks had appeared on the beach, sails flapping in the breeze and barbeque smoke drifting aimlessly. Bathing didn’t seem to be high on the agenda; the tide was very low and the water still rather cool, so there was much paternal sandcastle building and a group of young men worked off their testosterone in a game of head-the-football. Despite this, there was plenty of space and the situation and the views were glorious.

Burgh Island with thrift
Burgh Island with thrift

 

After our picnic, Hazel wanted to do some sketching so Elizabeth and I walked on the cliff path where there are good views across the Avon estuary to Burgh Island and its art deco, icing sugar, hotel. Thrift was beginning to form its pink, cliff-top drifts and yellow kidney vetch was showing well. A couple of rock pipits skittered skilfully around the cliffs.

As we walked, I watched out for interesting insects and was well rewarded. Several small solitary bees with black abdomens and pale stripes bathed in dandelion petals, nectaring I suppose. The BWARS experts told me that these were Andrena males but from my pictures we couldn’t identify the species.

solitary bee
male Andrena on dandelion

 

Later on we saw two black St Mark’s Flies “loved up” (I owe this expression to Emma Sarah Tennant). It is, in fact, a very appropriate expression as these flies are also called “love bugs” because of their ability to copulate in mid air.

St Mark's flies
St Mark’s Flies, mating pair. The male on the right has a much larger head and eyes despite being slightly smaller overall.

 

On a rising part of the cliff path we found a long section of hard, grass-free soil with many small holes. We also found some of the occupants, one dead and one alive. These are Polymorphic Sweat Bees (Halictus rubicundus); the females have a pale- striped, black abdomen and their hind legs are coated in yellow/orange hairs.

Halictus nests
Halictus nests. If you look carefully at the small bank on the left of the photo you can see crumbly soil coming from the nest holes.

 

Halictus rubicundus
Halictus rubicundus on hard ground.

 

Halictus rubicundus dead
dead Halictus rubicundus – they nest on the main path up the cliff and so are very vulnerable to passing walkers

 

We had agreed to meet Hazel near the Gastrobus for a drink. Elizabeth and I arrived a bit early but eventually I saw Hazel coming along the sandy path across the dunes from the beach. Suddenly she shouted: “Come quickly, get your camera, it’s an adder”. I did as she said and fumbled my camera out of its case. Sure enough slithering across the path was a very fine adder that disappeared in to the rough grass on the other side of the path leaving only swirly patterns on the sand. As I was taking the photos I did my best to look at the snake; the zigzag patterns and the colours did make an impression but the photos tell the story better.

Adder at Bantham 1
starting to cross

 

Adder at Bantham 2
nearly across

 

Adder at Bantham 3
entering the undergrowth

 

Adder at Bantham 4
the evidence

 

There are many signs dotted around the dunes at Bantham warning about ”Adders”. Now we know why!

Oh I do like the bees beside the seaside!

Sea, surf, sand and sunshine: this is the exotic scene a few days ago at Bantham in South Devon. Here the River Avon ends its journey from Dartmoor to the sea giving rise to South Devon’s top surfing beach. The green, rocky outcrop in the estuary is Burgh Island providing a surreal setting for its art deco hotel which has, over the years, welcomed the rich and famous as well as inspiring two of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries. The views are spectacular and this is a frequently painted and frequently photographed spot.

Bantham enjoys a mild climate and I had come here to see what flowers were still showing and what insects were about. In Totnes, about 15 miles inland, there are few flowers left for the bees and other insects. Globe thistle has been very popular with bumblebees but is almost over, sedum is still thronged with honeybees and there is Himalayan balsam by the river but that’s about it. The huge banks of ivy dotted around the town promise food but don’t yet deliver. They may be covered with their grey-green lollipop flower heads but in Totnes these stay firmly closed.

Burgh Island over cliffs
Burgh Island from the cliffs showing the art deco hotel

 

At Bantham, I follow the coast path up the cliff where there are good views of the bay. There are a few flowers about and I notice a solitary bee and a few small flies on a tall dandelion-like plant that I think is Hawkweed. Some yellow vetch lights up the grass but few other flowers are showing.

Bee on Hawkweed 1
Solitary bee on dandelion-like flower, possibly Hawkweed

 

Soapwort at Bantham
Soapwort (double flowered)

 

adders
You have been warned!

 

Behind the beach there are marram grass-clothed sand dunes dotted with flowers of evening primrose and soapwort. I see a stonechat twitching its tale but I don’t see any insects. We walk cautiously here, chastened by the many signs warning us of adders. I jump when I almost tread on a slow worm but, judging from the speed of its disappearance, it also gets a fright.

River Avon at Bantham
The River Avon as it meanders along the edge of the Ham where much of the ivy is found

 

Back from the dunes is a large tongue of land bordered on one side by the river Avon as it makes one final meander before meeting the sea. This is the Ham where there are huge banks of ivy and this is where I get my next surprise. The first stand of ivy that we encounter has a small but noisy cloud of insects above it showing us that at least the top of the bush is in flower. Large parts of the bush are still waiting to blossom so this must be a very recent flowering. Among the insects enjoying the ivy flower cafe, I notice many small flies and some chunky hoverflies. I also see, and this is the big surprise given that we are still early September, many large, crescent-shaped ivy bees (Colletes hederae) jostling for position on the few ivy flower heads available. The bees look very fresh, each with its black and yellow-striped abdomen, russet-haired thorax and prominent antennae. I assume these are recently emerged males, now feeding and getting ready to mate once the females appear.

Ivy Bee 4
Ivy bees on ivy

 

Walking round the Ham we come across more ivy and more ivy bees. There must be thousands of bees here and that implies a large aggregation of nests. Although I look in all the likely places, the nests prove elusive and I can’t locate them; there are large tracts of land that I can’t access, so I assume they nest there.

Ivy Bee 3
Jostling for position

 

Ivy bee and red admiral
Ivy bee with red admiral

 

I hadn’t expected to see ivy bees on September 10th; I hadn’t expected to find ivy in flower. The mild seaside climate must encourage the ivy flowers and the bees synchronise their cycle accordingly. I felt quite smug for a while having made such “early” observations of Colletes hederae but then I read a report on the BWARS Facebook page of ivy bees a few miles west of Bantham dated September 1st !

Bantham boat house figure
Lady Franklin’s figurehead

 

During my nest-searching, I drop down to Bantham quay by the river where there is a boat house, built in 1937 to commemorate the coronation of George VI. Two striking figureheads adorn the corners of this building; one of these is of Lady Jane Franklin, looking wistfully out to sea. Her figurehead is Victorian, coming from a ship she financed in memory of her husband, Sir John Franklin who died attempting to navigate the Northwest Passage.

Bantham boat house plaque
The story of Lady Franklin’s figurehead

 

With the retreat of the arctic ice cap and global climate change, the Northwest Passage will probably now become navigable for some months each year. Although this may open new trade routes it also increases the danger of damage to the pristine arctic environment.

The title of this post comes from a song, well known in the UK, here is a video clip: